Growing up along the dusty roads of Beckley, West Virginia, in the 1950s, a young Jewell Hoover embraced three pieces of generational wisdom handed down from her paternal grandmother: honor the family name, keep good credit and never lose your dignity.
On a corner shelf in her grandmother’s home sat a porcelain teapot, a repository for family savings.
“If somebody in the community needed a loan for a sick kid, to buy groceries, or sometimes to get away from a domestic violence situation, she would loan or give them the money,” Hoover recalled.
Today, as the year 2021 draws to a close, Hoover is in the final days of her two-year term as chair of the Foundation For The Carolina’s Board of Directors – the first Black woman to hold that title.
In ways large and small, her work with the Foundation is a reflection of the values instilled by her grandmother – directing available resources to uplift those in need.
In a typical year, Hoover said, the Foundation might award as many as 20,000 grants. But in 2020 – the year Covid-19 arrived – the Foundation’s grant total swelled to more than 115,000.
“My entire chairmanship was spent on Zoom,” she said. “But that was a two-year period where the Foundation never gave any ground.”
Sitting in her south Charlotte home, where her grandmother’s teapot occupies a prominent place inside a neatly arranged china cabinet, Hoover ticks off a list of some of the causes the Foundation has undertaken since the pandemic began: help for small business owners, support for the city’s arts and culture sector, helping to keep food pantries stocked, helping families in danger of eviction, raising funds to support the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative.
“There’s just so many exciting things that have happened,” she said, “and they just keep going.”
She continued: “We have a wonderful president and CEO, Michael Marsicano, and I’m one of his biggest fans. Michael always finds a way to get it done. So when you ask me if I was surprised (by the Foundation’s Covid successes), the answer is no; I was not.”
When prodded to speak of her own contribution to those successes, Hoover demures, electing instead to speak of a “team effort” and the dedication of the Foundation’s staff.
“When I look back over the last two years as the board chair, what I am proud of is that I was able to bring consensus, to listen to different perspectives and always get to a consensus,” she said. “I’m proud of the fact that I was able to participate with an entity that made a huge social impact on the Charlotte area in terms of creating opportunities for good, helping to raise money for social programs. Not many people get to do that.”
Marsicano, who has led the Foundation since 1999, said that earlier this year, when the Foundation did “some great soul searching on diversity, equity and inclusion,” Hoover’s leadership was invaluable.
“This was, I think, something that was quite close to her heart,” he said. “And I think she very much appreciated the approach that we took of telling what we did well, what we did poorly, and where we didn’t do enough.”
He described Hoover’s financial acumen as “second to none” – not surprising given her storybook career, which saw her retire in 2003 as U.S. Deputy Comptroller of the Currency for the Western District, which gave her oversight of all national banks from Missouri to California, plus Alaska and Hawaii.
It was a position Hoover hardly could have imagined growing up poor in West Virginia, the daughter of a brick mason dad and a stay-at-home mom, in a state where just 2% of the population, at that time, was Black.
“I grew up during a period of segregation,” Hoover said. “The first time I ever went to school with a person whose skin color was not like mine was my freshman year in college. The first time I ever ate in a restaurant was my freshman year in college. And growing up where I did, those opportunities and those privileges and rights were not afforded to Black people.”
It was those same life experiences, she said, that helped shape her work on the Foundation’s board. They also forged her strong belief that children in poverty, when exposed to new ideas and new experiences, can often change their trajectory in life.
“As a little girl growing up in West Virginia, you don’t know how broad those horizons are” she said, “and the cliche that you hear today – that you don’t know what you don’t know – is the truth. You just don’t know what opportunities are out there in the world.”
Hoover recalled that, during her high school years, she took part in a hometown initiative that aimed to expose children from Beckley’s poor families to experiences in arts and culture. As a recipient of that initiative, she received five tickets to see a symphony performance.
“As you can imagine, I didn’t know where I was going and what I was going to be exposed to,” she said. “But I dressed up in my finest, which wasn’t much, but I had on my best Sunday coat and Sunday shoes, and that exposed me to a different horizon. There’s a life outside of my little world.”
After graduating from West Virginia State College with a degree in business education, Hoover returned to her hometown, where she spent five years as a public school teacher, earning $5,000 a year. To supplement her pay, she worked summers as a bank teller, earning $4.25 an hour.
“During the entire history of my hometown in Beckley, the banks had never hired an African American,” she recalled. “And so they hired me in 1972 and, as you can imagine in a little town, the word got out that there’s a Black person working as a teller. People would come and just stand in the lobby to look at me. They just couldn’t believe it.”
It was while working at the bank that Hoover’s career took a fortuitous turn – she met an employee from the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency — a division of the U.S. Treasury Department — who invited her to apply for work with the agency, and after some initial hesitation, she agreed.
About a week into her first assignment (in Charleston, West Virginia), Hoover was required as a new employee to complete an individual development plan, which asked about her long-term goals with the agency. She said she wanted to be a deputy comptroller.
“All of the white guys just almost fell down laughing,” she said. “But when I retired in March of 2003, that was my title – deputy controller. I was the first African American female to hold that position, and no other African American female has held it since.”
Hoover said she retired to Charlotte because she had been assigned to work here once and found it to be a “Goldilocks” city – not too big and not too small.
“It wasn’t a huge metropolitan area like New York. I felt the people were friendlier. I really liked the climate. There are so many things about the city that drew me here,” she said.
Before being invited to join the Foundation’s board, Hoover said, she had kept a quiet profile in retirement. She has no close relatives left in West Virginia, only two adult sons (and their families) who live in the Charlotte area. Several years ago, she began nurturing a long-held love for painting. She began taking lessons and is building a sun-dappled studio in her home, which displays some of her artwork.
During her months of Covid isolation, Hoover committed herself to completing a memoir about her only sibling, Earl “Butch” Hoover, who died from complications from lung cancer at age 42. She describes her brother — a Vietnam War-era veteran who spent years on a General Motors assembly line and later working odd jobs — as one of the most courageous people she has known.
“Not the type of courage that, if you’re facing a mountain lion or a bear, you’re not afraid,” she said. “But he just had so much courage for dealing with challenges in life. Subjects didn’t come easy in high school. The bully was always there, even as an adult. The jobs that he wanted did not materialize, but he never wavered. He always had a smile on his face. And I don’t know if I will ever have that kind of courage, but he did.”
Hoover said she still draws strength from her brother, who was two years her senior.
“He was the wind beneath my wings,” she said, recalling that it took her five years to complete the memoir.
“I would write a chapter, and then I will cry a bit, and I would stay away from the book for six months, and then I would go back to it,” she said.
Hoover speculates that it was her financial background that drew the Foundation’s attention and later an invitation to join its board – a belief confirmed by Marsicano.
Once selected, she served two three-year terms, including a stint as chair of the finance committee – a key position given the Foundation’s $3.5 billion in assets under management.
For all of Hoover’s financial skills, Marsicano said she is equally adept in leadership.
“She has this uncanny sense about when to lead as the volunteer chair and when to let the executive lead. And that is, I think, a great talent, because they’re two different roles, and leadership is required in both,” he said.
When the pandemic arrived, Marsicano said, Hoover was “very attentive to how the staff was during Covid.”
“We were just firing on all cylinders, and she was just a rock during all that was coming at us,” he said. “She just took it in stride, prioritized and really helped us manage through a very rewarding but a very challenging time.”
When asked what factors she believes contributed to her successes in life, Hoover paused, momentarily lost in reflection.
“I’ve asked myself that question, and I don’t know,” she finally whispered. “Maybe they saw potential in me. I really don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that throughout my career, there have been so many unseen angels that have seen potential in me, have had faith in me. And they have been mentors, and they’ve been sponsors.”
She continued: “I firmly believe that you can’t do anything by yourself, that the assistance and help always comes from somebody else. It’s a coworker. It’s a family member who has faith in you.”
And sometimes, as Hoover saw in the example set by her grandmother and reaffirmed in her own work with the Foundation, that assistance comes through determined individuals who understand instinctively the importance of helping others when a neighbor needs it most.